U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Trump: ‘Who is this guy? How will he behave?’

Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News)

The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Friday that big business leaders are perplexed by billionaire Donald Trump’s political leanings and scrambling to learn more about how the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will govern if he wins the White House.

“We hear mostly concern from our members: ‘Who is this guy? What do we know about him? How will he behave?’ ” Chamber president Thomas J. Donohue told reporters during a briefing at the organization’s headquarters in Washington. “People are calling his buddies who are involved in his business or who know him from wherever. I’ve been talking to some of those people as well.”

Donohue added that the business community remains cautious about both Trump, whose anti-trade message has resonated in the GOP primary campaign, and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“There hasn’t been much support from the business community for either of them,” he said. “Businesses are sitting on their hands and sitting on their cash and watching very carefully about where to make their investment and when, and they’re wondering who he is and what he’s going to do.”

The chamber has grown increasingly frustrated in a 2016 election season that has elicited strong anti-trade sentiment among voters in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. Trump has denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration, and Clinton, who promoted the deal while serving as secretary of state, has moved left during a fierce primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and said she no longer supports it.

The White House is eying a potential lame-duck session of Congress after the November elections as a final chance to win ratification for the TPP on Capitol Hill. Donohue suggested that Trump could soften his stance on trade as he talks to Republican lawmakers and others.

“I have no idea what he will do with his message,” Donohue said. “I do know that in other meetings and gatherings and visits he is asking people about their views on why trade is significant.” Although the chamber does not make endorsements in presidential campaigns, he added, “it’s been very interesting to watch the metamorphosis of Trump running for office. He on a regular basis clarifies his views as he becomes better informed.”

Donohue suggested that trade deals are easy for politicians to bash during elections at a time when economic growth remains sluggish, but he said that occupants of the White House have a different worldview. President Obama denounced the economic legacy of the North American Free Trade Agreement during his primary campaign against Clinton in 2008, as he sought to appeal to voters in manufacturing-heavy Ohio, but Obama has vigorously pursued the TPP, the largest regional trade deal in history.

“When you walk into the White House and sit in that chair, all of that changes,” Donohue said. The winner of the election “is going to have to deal with a fundamental reality about what the geopolitical implications of the TPP are.”

Donohue said the chamber, which does make endorsements on statewide races, is actively involved in about a half-dozen Senate and House campaigns so far and will ramp up its activity for the general election.

“We’re within reach of getting this [TPP] done, but we’re not going to get anything done until the main event is over — the election,” he said. But Donohue added of the presidential campaign: “I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Has anybody?”

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